The plot lines in musical theater often allow us to map our feelings onto distant fantasies: the heroism of French revolutionaries, the love of a disfigured mystery man for a young opera singer, the exuberance of a rascally band of dancing cats.
But some contemporary musicals strive to keep the genre relevant by giving us stories about ourselves that we really need to hear.
Broadway Across America has brought one such musical to Austin this week. Winner of the 2010 Tony Award for best musical, "Memphis," playing through Sunday at Bass Concert Hall, takes us back to the days of American segregation and the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement.
It tells the story of a white radio DJ, Huey Calhoun (Joey Elrose), who falls in love with an African American singer, Felicia Farrell (Jasmin Richardson), at a time when such liaisons were socially (and legally) verboten.
"Memphis" is everything a good musical should be, and then some.
The show provides a lot of big dance numbers, and the costumes are fun without being over the top. David Gallo’s scenic design is dynamic and beautifully cohesive, and the transitions shift us smoothly between a multitude of locations and periods of time.
With book and music by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, the show’s songs are wonderful — offering a range of 1950s sounds and the kind of catchy tunes that stick with you after leaving the theater.
The dramatic leads are both outstanding, and so is much of the supporting cast. As the somewhat hapless but utterly endearing Huey, Elrose charms both his leading lady and the audience. Jasmin Richardson imbues her budding-diva character with irresistible humility and grace.
Alongside the lead couple, you’ll fall in love with their friends, too. As Bobby, Jerrial T. Young occasionally steals the show, offering comic relief and delightfully surprising pizazz. Closing out the first act with the heart wrenching "Say a Prayer," Avionce Hoyles and his gorgeous voice captivate the attention of everyone in the room.
But more than all that, "Memphis" tackles some painful aspects of American history without too much sugar coating, giving it the thematic weight that takes it beyond just a good show. Though the genre calls for lighthearted singing and dancing, "Memphis" doesn’t pretend that American race relations could change with a kiss and a song. Because the songs are exceptional, however, we leave the theater wanting to take both the music and the message home.